LINGUIST List 2.339

Wednesday, 10 July 1991

Disc: Gender-Related Language

Editor for this issue: <>


  1. , About gender-related language
  2. , gender
  3. "ALICE FREED", Language and gender

Message 1: About gender-related language

Date: Sat, 6 Jul 91 15:22:36 PDT
From: <>
Subject: About gender-related language
Differences between male talk and female talk
are not *register* differences, and treating them
as such would obscure the fundamental issue
of gender-related contrasts. It would be as if
a linguist ideologically opposed to the notion
of socio-economic classes decided to treat
class-related language differences
(in pronunciation, for example) as differences
in (for example) registers, in order to avoid dealing
with the class issue. Not that this approach
has not been tried in the social sciences --but the
results are not likely to be the clarification of
the question. Further, I'm at a loss to see how
women would stand to lose from using an appropriate
focus on the question.
M. Azevedo
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Message 2: gender

Date: Fri, 5 Jul 91 14:34 CDT
Subject: gender
In reply to Cosgarve's concern that the style differences that Tannen
discusses are linked to sex differences, and how this interpretation has
the potential to deterministically interpret female and male behaviors,
I would like to make the following remarks:
1. Let's not confuse "sex differences" with "gender differences". "sex"
refers to physical, biological characteristics. "Gender" refers to
socially constructed and historically changing interpretations of what
the physycal differences between the sexes MEAN and how they should be
reflected in behaviors.
2. The words "male" and "female" are used when discussing biological
differences, and the words "feminine" and "masculine" are used to
discuss cultural, social, historically changing definitions and
interpretations of what the physical differences mean. Thus, it is
concievable that a behavior can be labeled "feminine" but still be
enacted by males, and vis-versa.
3. I am investigating gender differences in preschoolers' conversations.
In a soon-to-be-published paper I have characterized the differences
in preschoolers' conflict talk as due to social norms in same sex groups
that shape social interaction. I describe girls' groups as "solidarity-
based" and boys' groups as "dominance-based". Solidarity-based groups
have certain norms, or styles of verbal interaction based on certain
principles, for example, not violating face. They are highly relational
in certain ways. Dominance-based groups have other norms, or styles of
interaction, based on turf-building and competition for dominance.
It is the style of the interaction that is important, not the gender of
the group. In other words, one can describe a group as "dominance-based"
or "solidarity-based" independently of their physical sex. Thus, girls'
groups could indeed be dominance-based, and boys' groups can be
solidarity-based. In fact, there are dominance-based exchanges in both
boys' and girls' groups, as well as solidarity-based exchanges in both
groups. By using this theoretical approach, I intend to avoid the
deterministic linking of behaviors to one's sex. One could, I suppose,
call the dominance-based and solidarity-based verbal styles of conflict
management "different registers" as Cosgrave proposes.
 The paper I refer to is:
"Conflict Talk: Sociolinguistic Challenges to Self-Assertion and How Young
Girls Meet Them. MERRILL-PALMER QUARTERLY, vol. 38, no. 1, January 1992.
Special issue on child language research approaches, edited by Catherine
Correction in # 3 above: "It is the style of the interaction that is important,
not the *gender* of the group" -- should read "...not the *sex* of the group.."
Amy Sheldon
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Message 3: Language and gender

Date: 9 Jul 91 13:19:00 EST
From: "ALICE FREED" <>
Subject: Language and gender
I, too, am uncomfortable with Deborah Tannen's book. I object to speaking of
language characteristics as being strictly defined by sex (or gender) and I
find the book to be a dangerous over-simplification of a very complex subject.
If there are identifiable language styles to speak of, used by some men and
some women, these are not registers based on sex. What we are dealing with are
language characteristics based on socialization and power differentials.
The problem with Tannen's approach to gender differences in language (and also
that of others following Maltz and Borker, 1982), is that it focuses only on
socialization, assumes that all girls and all boys are socialized the same way,
and it ignores the effects of power differences on verbal interaction. This is
where it does women a disservice. Tannen makes it sound like all women and all
men automatically talk a particular way. Secondly, such work appears to justify
language behavior in conversation that many women and some men experience as
rude inattention and explains it away as a natural extension of being male.
The fact is, most generalizations about language differences and gender are
based on decontextualized quantitative studies, a limited amount of cross-sex
conversations and a great deal of anecdotal evidence.
In the hopes of correcting this, Alice Greenwood and I have undertaken a study
of the precise linguistic features involved in conversations between pairs of
women in casual friendly contexts. This should provide us with the beginnings
of an understanding of the specific linguistic factors which one group of women
makes use of in a particular context. Until such specifics are known from
studies of a wide range of social contexts and from a variety of different
populations, it is premature to make definitive claims about women's style.
If anyone else is working on conversational analysis between same sex pairs,
please reply to this list or to :
 Alice F. Freed
 Linguistics Department
 Montclair State College
 Upper Montclair, New Jersey 07043
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